‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’, a phrase that has become synonym with Macbeth. It is also the introduction to one of the most important themes of this tragedy: appearance and reality. Shakespeare uses various characters and situations to emphasize this confusion between the real and the surreal, the authentic and the fake, the act and the sincere. In order to discuss this theme, different characters will be looked at: in the first paragraph, the Witches, in the second, Duncan and in the third, Lady Macbeth.
Appearance vs. reality is also seen in the beginning of the play when the witches introduce the quotation, “fair is foul, and foul is fair,” or what seems good is really bad—Macbeth; and what seems bad is really good—Malcolm flees Scotland when his father dies and looks guilty, but he is only trying to protect himself. The witches’ second set of predictions promise Macbeth a long reign. They tell half-truths to give him a “false sense of security. ” Though the first prediction is true (“Beware Macduff”), the other two predictions make Macbeth believe he can’t be killed.
The appearance of the predictions lures him, and the reality behind them destroys Macbeth. The Witches introduce the theme with the infamous phrase “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” in the first scene. It’s functional for the Witches to say this in the beginning of the book, as they are the start of all the perplexity. They become the core of confusion when they awaken Macbeth’s ambition and transform his perspective of good and evil, making bad things look good and good things look bad. Ironically in connection with this, Banquo warns Macbeth, “Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s In deepest consequence”.
The Witches continue to speak in contradicting language, such as “lesser than Macbeth, and greater” and “Not so happy, yet much happier” that adds to the sense of moral confusion, by implying that nothing is quite what it seems. Banquo’s warning is fulfilled at the end of the play when the Witches had won Macbeth’s trust with prophecies that became true –‘honest trifles’- and then betray him in the things that really mattered, his life and his country -‘deepest consequence’- to win his spirit for hell.
Until his death, King Duncan was misled by Macbeth’s false loyalty. When the Thane of Cawdor had been found guilty of being a traitor and was hanged, King Duncan thought so highly of Macbeth, that he gave the title to him. The Thane then ironically dies with pride while Macbeth dies a foe of Scotland. The King was under the impression that Macbeth was a loyal and brave soldier, calling him “O worthiest cousin”, but Macbeth was actually already planning to kill the King, “whose murder yet is but fantastical”.
Even when Duncan goes to visit Macbeth, he praises the castle’s pleasant environment and hospitality, “This castle hath a pleasant seat”, but is totally unaware of Macbeth’s plans to murder him. From the first time we meet Lady Macbeth, we get the impression of a strong-willed and bold person, an ideal wife. As the play evolves, Macbeth grows stronger and Lady Macbeth begins to despair, commits suicide and proves to be the antithesis of an ideal wife.
She seems to lack conscience, saying “A little water clears us of this deed”, but towards the end her conscience drives her mad and she sleepwalks, washing her hands and saying “Out, damned spot! ” refering to the blood she imagines to see on her hands as a result of her plaguy conscience. In conclusion, interestingly Macbeth’s first line in the play is “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”, suggesting Macbeth as the focus of the play’s moral confusion.
Within him the conflict between good and evil continue, in the end driving him to his death. It’s clear to see that Shakespeare identified in life what he saw as the world’s fatal flaw, the inability to distinguish between appearance and reality, using Macbeth as a tool to communicate this. Throughout the play appearances, which are often deceitful, influence the whole plot of the play. It comes out mainly through the way Macbeth saw Kingship as a form of security and prestige but was then faced with even stronger feelings of insecurity and fear.
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